Bill, the first big-screen venture from the team behind the phenomenally popular Horrible Histories television series, is perhaps the most British film since Paddington. Characters complain repeatedly about London house prices; aspiring artists are told to grow up and get a proper job (Anne Hathaway presumably running for Schools Minister…); foreigners landing on the English coast are immediately greeted by customs officials and subjected to bag searches; and people start giving directions every time someone mentions Croyden. Saturated in the bathetic humour of the British sitcom and poking gentle, inoffensive fun at itself throughout, it’s perhaps no surprise that the film is (so far) only getting a domestic release.
Interestingly, from the point of view of Shakespeare biopic studies, the film integrates many of the distinct elements from both Shakespeare in Love and Anonymous, the two previous major treatments of Shakespeare’s life. From Shakespeare in Love comes the belief that great art is ‘writing what you know’, the need to please Queen Elizabeth I with a transcendent play, a dastardly Earl who becomes Shakespeare’s main antagonist, and a metatheatrical joy in punning and in-jokes. From Anonymous the film borrows European intrigue, an elderly and doddering Queen, a rakish and (initially) talentless Shakespeare, and a blithe disregard for anything remotely approaching history. As perhaps befits a film that is (you know) for kids, the elements combine to form a fairly traditional morality story of being true to oneself, avoiding pride, and in doing so becoming a legend.
Matthew Baynton is Bill Shakespeare, father of three in a Stratford that doesn’t pretend to look anything like Stratford, and lead lutenist with the Mortal Coils, kicked out after a local gig for his self-indulgent soloing. The film sets him up as a surprisingly unpleasant character, particularly as his wife (Martha Howe-Douglas) pleads with him to take responsibility for his family and get a job, to which he responds by absconding instead to London. The film prioritises the following of one’s dreams, but never quite reconciles itself with the directly conflicting narrative strand prioritising taking responsibility for oneself and one’s dependents – in one rather shocking moment, a newly successful Shakespeare tells a departing Anne that she’ll regret leaving him when he’s famous, and their subsequent reconciliation rather validates his selfishness.
Still, the adorably hapless Bill quickly sets to work. In the film’s most endearing tribute to Shakespeare in Love, he meets Jim Howick’s Christopher Marlowe in a bar and the older writer proceeds to offer a job (the two of them wearing vegetable costumes in a bid to get passers-by to eat their ‘two a week’) and then help Shakespeare adapt his work. Shakespeare’s first play, A Series of Funny Misunderstandings, throws every conceivable Shakespearean motif into a chaotic song-and-dance sequence reminiscent of the Reduced Shakespeare Company, and its disastrous reception forces Marlowe and Shakespeare into collaboration. In fan-pleasing scenes, a montage shows Marlowe and Shakespeare writing their joint masterpiece together, a play sadly lost when Marlowe (for the sake of paying off the Russian property magnates who own most of London…) betrays Shakespeare, attempts to sell the play on and is stabbed for his trouble. For the early modernists, there’s a wonderful moment as Marlowe frames Shakespeare as a Catholic, a belated reversal of his own historical fortunes at the hand of Thomas Kyd.
The film’s model of authorship is refreshingly complex. Shakespeare shows a modicum of talent but his initial efforts are a mess, prioritising knockabout farce and bewildering twists. It is Marlowe who is imagined to teach him the craft of writing, while admitting that he can never teach Shakespeare what is in his heart – that is the essence of a true writer. As such, Marlowe becomes an Obi-Wan Kenobi-like mentor: following his death he appears in ghost-like figure, telling Bill to trust his instincts and write what’s in his heart. Yet even then, the final play performed before Elizabeth is a combination of Henry V, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth and more – it is Helen McCrory’s Elizabeth, ordering Southampton to take over his patronage, who insists that he start concentrating on one story at a time. But around the edges of the play, Bill has begun speaking in sonnets and iambic pentameter, his experiences moulding his voice into recognisable Shakespearean (or more pertinently, moving from a contemporary idiom to cod-Elizabethan), just as the final shot shows him adopting the facial hair familiar from the Droueshout engraving. This is a film about Shakespeare the man becoming the Shakespearean myth.
Bill’s plot intersects with the more consistently entertaining Spanish conspiracy against Elizabeth’s life. In a hilarious opening cameo, Damien Lewis plays an English spy stealing treasure from the court of Phillip II in true Indiana Jones style, only to be captured and imprisoned. The call to England to discuss a prisoner transfer allows Ben Willbond’s Phillip to engage a particularly hapless band of assassins – the uber-violent Lope Lopez; a thug unable to understand metaphor; a master of disguise whose theatrical ambitions allow him to indulge his penchant for women’s clothing. Sheltering in a Catholic hiding hole under Westminster Abbey, the Spaniards decide to recruit a writer to write them a play, via which they can smuggle gunpowder into Elizabeth’s throne room. Their stooge is the Earl of Croyden (Simon Farnaby), desperate to curry favour by writing a play to please the Queen, but self-serving enough to join the Spanish plot when its true purpose is revealed.
The intersection of the two plots, embroiling Marlowe and Shakespeare in the Spanish intrigue, takes place against a backdrop of very silly and consistently entertaining visual jokes and groanworthy puns, performed by a core cast all doubling multiple roles. As a starstruck Shakespeare wanders happily through London, the camera picks up muggings, stabbings, vomiting and deaths behind him. A collector of dead bodies waits impatiently for Marlowe to pass out before she clocks off for the night (and the plague cunningly stands in for austerity Britain as Marlowe complains that it’s killing the arts). The hapless Ian, servant to Croyden, is repeatedly impaled, shot and punched, yet survives to get his own back on Croyden in a credits sting. And the doddering but sly Burleigh delights in listing Elizabeth’s endless titles to Philip before allowing the Spanish king to kiss her hand.
The tone of the humour throughout is bathetic, and continually punctures all pretensions. Every time characters attempt to end on a dramatic flourish they are thwarted – Philip, slamming a dagger into a letter from Elizabeth to make his point, can’t get it to stick, prompting discussion about veneers and the best kinds of wood in which to impale daggers. Lope’s threat to Shakespeare that he ‘doesn’t want to know where I’m going to stick’ his torture device is then followed by him explaining exactly where. And Philip’s patient attempts to explain what a Trojan Horse is became increasingly impatient, even following the building of a full-scale model to communicate the image. The comedic bumblings of the Spanish, similar in fact to the knights of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, are the most consistently funny element, and by the time the film started taking itself more seriously in Shakespeare’s final moral pronouncements, I rather missed the silliness of earlier.
The absolute highlight, however, is Laurence Rickard’s Walsingham, Elizabeth’s errant spymaster and Marlowe’s former employer. Repeating his mantra that the best spy hides in plain sight, Walsingham turns up in a cart of dead bodies, a pie, behind a toilet, under a bed and often just from thin air. With his withering turn of phrase, his whispered delivery and his poise, he is both instantly ridiculous and entirely compelling as a private eye, or even Javert tracking the elusive Shakespeare/Valjean. Interestingly, although the film is purportedly about Shakespeare, Walsingham and the attempts to track down the Catholic plot were what drove the film, and Baynton ended up reprising his role from The Wrong Mans in his reactive attempts to avoid the many parties interested in exploiting his potential.
Bill falls into the perennial traps of the Shakespeare biopic, buying into the idea of genius (Shakespeare finally scribbles out a play from scratch in a single night), effacing collaboration (the Marlowe-Shakespeare play is lost) and allowing the hero to achieve professional glory, a happy reconciliation with his wife, fortune and favour. Yet the wry take on a gritty and, yes, horrible London, the puncturing of pomposity and the gloriously un-PC take on Anglo-Spanish relations (most entertainingly in the accents as the Spanish pass themselves off as the ‘Cockerney Players of Bow’) make this an enjoyable and silly romp through Elizabethan court politics, with a sprinkling of Shakespearean allusions for good measure.